In 2012 I moved to the Phoenix area. I had served in the Marine Corps for four years and spent the next 12 in the Army National Guard. Multiple deployments took a toll on my mind and body, so I began the years-long journey of re-registering for my benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As I was going through the process, news broke that employees at the Phoenix VA hospital were manipulating appointment wait times, giving the appearance that the facility was seeing its veteran patients on time.
That manipulation involved secret lists with the actual wait times that far exceeded the department’s goals for seeing patients kept off the record by VA staff.
Veterans were waiting months for care; some even died while their names lingered on those secret lists.
That wasn’t the news I wanted to hear as I patiently waited for my evaluations as a new patient in the Phoenix VA.
Over the years, I saw dysfunction and mismanagement that would never be acceptable outside a government-run health care system. I would attempt to get appointments for specialty care for my service-connected injuries. Still, the wait times were weeks or months long, and I just gave up on the VA as a good option for me.
Not all veterans have this option.
For many, the VA’s twisted maze of delayed appointments and confusing procedures for using VA benefits outside the VA keep veterans trapped inside the system. Which is exactly what the VA wants. The department wants to maintain as much of a monopoly on veterans’ care as possible, and they get away with it on a daily basis.
Despite laws in the years following the Phoenix VA scandal that established greater accountability for VA employees and expanded community care options for veterans, the VA has done its best to undermine those reforms every step of the way.
VA staff still use manipulative scheduling practices to undermine the access standards for community care. And the VA just announced recently that it would no longer be following a 2017 law that allows the department to fire and discipline poorly performing employees.
None of this instills confidence in those of us who have used or continue to use the VA for care. Instead, it leaves us wondering if we will be the next VA horror story.
Nine years after the Phoenix VA scandal, I don’t have many issues with the VA, but only because I stopped using it for my care. I go once or twice a year because I have to for my disability benefits, but I steer clear of it for all my medical care.
I’m lucky enough that I’m able to use alternate insurance to seek care in better facilities that treat me like a human being rather than a number. I pay thousands of dollars a year for that coverage rather than use what my country has provided me through the VA.
That should say something about the quality of care.
Much has changed in nine years, but too much has remained the same. Veterans have spoken up, and lawmakers have listened to them, passing sweeping reforms that should empower us with more options while making the VA a healthier choice for those that choose to use it. However, the VA has remained a barrier to all kinds of reforms, focusing on its well-being over the well-being of its patients.
I hope there will be better news to report by the time we get to the 10th anniversary.
Josh Stanwitz is CVA’s national grassroots liaison and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Army National Guard.